Exploring the Leather Community:
The leather community is a loosely knit community composed of individuals, partners and groups who typically like to wear leather accessories and garments, most often like those of the post-WWII biker culture. Many also share an interest in a common group of fetishes.
The common foundation the leather community or leather culture is built upon are the principals of trust, honor and respect.
Traditionally, leather culture has most often been associated with BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sado/Masochism) practices and its many subcultures. For many who wear it, black leather is a sensual second skin. The leather culture also includes people for whom wearing black leather clothing expresses heightened masculinity, love of motorcycles and independence, appropriation of erotic power, engagement in sexual kink or leather fetishism and participation in leather cultural events. Today the broader leather culture includes gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transsexual and pansexual practitioners.
The image of the leather-clad biker evolved from the biker groups that formed following the mid-1940’s. For some returning veterans, post World War II motorcycling offered camaraderie, adventure, excitement and occasional danger as a substitute for wartime experience. Men joining motorcycle clubs formed brotherhood bonds which came from a tradition long established in military values and the warriors before them, although these early motorcycle clubs were not gay.
Motorcycle events also provided a way for interested gay men to meet each other at a time when being gay was still considered a crime in most countries, punishable by years in prison or even execution. The gay male leather subculture began to emerge in the late 1940’s out out the post-WWII biker culture.
The 1953 outlaw biker film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, played on pop-cultural fascination with the July 1947 Hollister “riot” and promoted an image of jeans and leather jacket wearing, free-spirited masculine independence. This image appealed to some gay men who were dissatisfied with a culture that stereotyped gay men as effeminate.
Photographs of men in leather published by English photographer Tom Nicoll and drawings of gay biker leathermen published by Finish artist Tom of Finland, beginning in the mid-1950’s, helped to further define the emerging image of gay leathermen.
Early gay motorcycle groups, like other gay groups, were typically secretive as openness could result in members loss of jobs and criminal prosecution. The Satyrs, founded in Los Angeles in 1954, is considered the first documented gay motorcycle club. The Satyrs began as a group of seven gay men who were active in the L.A. motorcycle culture. The Satyrs organized outings known as runs or rides to secluded campgrounds for camping trips, also providing a space where men could explore activities illicit in the 1950’s. The Satyrs held their first Badger Flats Run in 1962.
Other early gay motorcycle clubs included:
- Oedipus, also in Los Angeles, was formed in 1958.
- Early San Francisco clubs included the Warlocks and California Motor Club, both founded in 1960.
- Chicago’s Second City Motorcycle Club was founded in 1963.
- New York’s Empire City Motorcycle Club was founded in 1964.
- The 69-Club in London was founded in 1965.
- Similar clubs emerged in other cities including Amsterdam and Berlin during the 1960’s.
The gay motorcycle clubs, like the clubs of straight motorcycle culture in general, offered brotherhood, adventure, and typically reflected a disaffection with the mainstream culture of post-World War II America. Perhaps as a result, the leather community that emerged from the motorcycle clubs also became the practical and symbolic location for gay men’s open exploration of kink and responsible BDSM.
Early gay leather/biker bars which emerged in the 1950’s typically resembled motorcycle clubs and became the easiest places for leathermen to meet and find camaraderie. Los Angeles and New York are reported to have had gay leather bars by the mid-1950’s. The Cinema, the first documented gay leather/biker bar in Los Angles, was opened by 1953. Shaw’s, the first documented leather bar in New York City was opened by 1953, followed by The Lodge which was opened by 1954. Amsterdam’s first leather bar and hotel, the Argos, opened in 1957. The first gay leather bar in Chicago was the Gold Coast, founded in 1958. San Francisco’s first documented leather bar was the Why Not which opened in 1960, although it soon closed. The Tool Box opened in San Francisco in 1961. In 1964 LIFE magazine published a feature on “Homosexuality In America” with its graphic depiction of San Francisco’s Tool Box.
As the leather subculture began to foster the development of loosely knit local leather communities, the leather bars became unofficial “community centers” offering leathermen a place to gather, connect with each other, share information and raise funds for causes.
As gay leather interest grew, leather specialty shops began to create and sell leather fetish gear for a more specific kinky nature. One of the first was The Leathermaker which was opened by D. Lyn Sterling on Melrose in Los Angeles in 1960.
During the 1950’s through the mid-1970’s gay leather bars, like other gay bars, were subject to sudden raids by the police to satisfy political interests, depending on state laws. By the mid 1960’s some began to challenge these raids:
- April 25,1965, three teenagers staged a sit-in in response to denial of service to LGBTQ people at Dewey’s Coffee Shop in Philadelphia. Protestors demonstrated outside the establishment for the next five days following their arrest.
- Jan 1, 1967, plain clothed police infiltrated the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. Police began beating patrons and ultimately 14 were arrested for kissing. The police activity started a riot which spread to other neighboring businesses where police officers knocked down a bar owner, a woman, and beat two bartenders unconscious. In response to the police raid, activists organized one of the earliest known demonstrations in support of LGBTQ civil rights, 300-600 attendees protested police brutality and discriminatory laws on February 11, 1967.
- August 1968, vice squad officers and six LAPD officers burst into The Patch, a gay bar in Wilmington, CA, demanding IDs and making arbitrary arrests. Lee Glaze, the bar owner, led bar patrons carrying flowers to a 3:00 am “flower power style” demonstration at the Harbor Division Police Station.
- Rev. Troy Perry was at the Patch with his boyfriend Tony Valdez during the raid, Valdez was one of those arrested. Empathy for his partner and others affected led Rev. Perry to found the Metropolitan Community Church in October 1968.
- June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen, two patrol officers and two detectives raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City when 205 people were in the bar. Some bar patrons refused to provide identification, prompting police to kick and beat people. A crowd began to grow outside. A female patron was hit on the head with a nightstick and shoved into the police wagon, leading to a crown rebellion which turned violent and forced the police to retreat into the Stonewall Inn for several hours. The rebellion lasted for several days.
- August 20, 1972, a dozen police raided a HELP (Homophile Effort for Legal Protection) monthly fundraiser at the Black Pipe, a Los Angeles area leather bar, arresting 21 men. HELP president Larry Townsend is among those arrested. The police were surprised when the organization fought back.
The Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, epitomizes the association of the leather subculture with BDSM. Townsend described in detail a subculture of gay males who wore leather and casually engaged in sadomasochistic sex with one another.
In 1975 a consenting adults law for residents over 18 years old repealed existing laws on sodomy in California. A handful of other states had also repealed sodomy laws. By 2002, 36 states had repealed their sodomy laws or their courts had overturned them. On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the Texas same-sex sodomy law, ruling that this private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the United States Constitution.
Women’s leather/biker groups also emerged during the late 1970’s and 1980’s. In 1978 sixteen women formed Samois, a lesbian-feminist BDSM organization in San Francisco, believed to be the first lesbian BDSM group in the United States. In 1979 the newly formed San Francisco lesbian motorcycle club, Dykes on Bikes, led the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade for the first time.
The AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s devastated the gay population in general, including leather men and women. Out of the devastation, however, a more cohesive leather community including leathermen and leatherwomen emerged.
Throughout the history of the leather culture a variety of traditions have been observed.
Trust, Honor and Respect: The common foundation the leather culture is built upon are the principals of trust, honor and respect. More than mere words, these values are basic to society, not just leather folk. Leather folk believe that if we follow these principles in our daily lives, we become role models for our families, both conventional and leather.
From the 1950’s through the 1970’s what is now often referred to as the old guard developed and defined the predominant leather culture. The old guard or traditional leather culture embraced lifestyle, rights and rituals mostly based on military protocols and rituals, with some variations by region. The old guard code emphasized strict formality and typically fixed dominant or submissive roles, men typically started at the bottom and worked their way up. Leathers were typically earned as a rite of passage. Other old guard practices emphasized brotherhood, discipline, honor, and respect, and are said to have promoted a stricter lifestyle, education, and intra-community privilege based on successive ranks or levels.
By the late 1970’s there was a gradual rebellion against the old guard role rigidity. There was a new emphasis on choices, or identity: a person might identify as a submissive or a dominant instead of being forced to start from the bottom and work up. The new guard or new leather culture that emerged during the next decades embraced switching and a greater variety of approaches to eroticism. This new leather community also began to embrace diversity and variety. Today leather culture includes gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transsexual and pansexual practitioners.
On May 28, 1989, at the International Mister Leather contest in Chicago, Tony DeBlase presented his design for a Leather Pride Flag. In an editorial in Drummer magazine, DeBlase explained that “The flag is composed of nine horizontal stripes of equal width. From the top and from the bottom, the stripes alternate black and royal blue. The central stripe is white. In the upper left quadrant of the flag is a large red heart. I will leave it to the viewer to interpret the colors and symbols.”
Although the creator of the flag did not attribute any colors to the flag, in succeeding years others have commonly described the colors as: black is for leather and for permanence; blue is for devotion, loyalty, and community; white is for purity and innocence; and the red heart is for the love of leathermen for each other and for their community.
International Mr. Leather:
International Mr. Leather (IML) was established in 1979 by Chuck Renslow, owner of the Gold Coast in Chicago, and his partner Dom Orejudos. The IML contest grew out of the Mr. Gold Coast contest. Held each May, the conference now spans several days, and includes the IML competition, speakers, socials, themed dance parties and a leather market. To compete, IML contestants must either be the winner of a bar, local or regional leather contest or be sponsored by a leather bar, business, club, or organization. A total of 52 contestants competed for the International Mr. Leather title in 2015.
CMEN holds its Mr. CMEN Leather contest each year during the West Coast Gathering each August, the winner is sponsored as a contestant for IML the following May. Gay Naturist International holds a Mr. GNI Leather contest at the GNI Gathering each August. Other contestants included regional and state contest winners, metropolitan area contest winners, organization contest winners and local bar contest winners. For more information visit Gay Community Events and Information.
Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, the self acclaimed biggest leather event in the world, was first held in 1984. It is held in late September each year. Folsom Street East is held in New York City each June, it is the largest outdoor fetish street festival on the East Coast, first held in 1997.
Berlin’s Easter in Berlin Leather Festival, Europe’s biggest gay leather and fetish event which takes place every year at Easter, was first held in 1975. Folsom Europe street fair is held each September in Berlin. Amsterdam Leather Pride is held each October, first held in 1996. London’s Fetish Week each July, which began in 2010, includes men who enjoy leather, uniforms, rubber, sports and other fetishes.
The Leather Archives & Museum opened in Chicago in 1996, and moved to its permanent 10,000-square-foot, two-story home in 1999. The Museum preserves material from various leather communities, houses exhibits relating to leather community history and sends traveling exhibits around the country.
Baldwin, Guy. The Leather Contest Guide; A Handbook for Promoters, Contestants, Judges and Titleholders. 2nd Edition. 2004, Daedalus Publishing Company, Los Angeles. ISBN 1-881943-08-9.
Baldwin, Guy. Ties that Bind; SM / Leather / Fetish Erotic Style; Issues, Commentaries and Advice. 2nd Edition, 2003, Daedalus Publishing Company, Los Angeles. ISBN 1-881943-09-7.
Davolt, Robert. Painfully Obvious; An Irreverent & Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM. 2003, Daedalus Publishing Company, Los Angeles. ISBN 1-881943-19-4.
Townsend, Larry. The Leatherman’s Handbook. Silver Jubilee Edition, 2000, L.T. Publications, Beverly Hills, CA ISBN 1-881684-19-9 (Original Edition published by Olympia Press in 1972)
Online Information Resources:
- The Leather Journal
- Leatherati: Leather People, Events and News
- Los Angeles Leather History
- BDSM Wiki
- Leather and Roses
- Southwest Leather Conference
- SM Safety
- Tom of Finland Foundation
- Gay Leather Community Events and Information
- Wearing Leather
- Leather Shops
- Handkerchief Codes
- Exploring Kink
- Mr. CMEN Leather
Trust, Honor and Respect
Information on this page is from the Leather 101 workshop at the West Coast Gathering, September 2016 – 2019, presented by Rick B. Mr CMEN Leather 2015.
Information on this page is provided for educational purposes and does not imply endorsement by CMEN. Please note that CMEN does not control the content of linked web sites, the organizations who own these web sites accept sole responsibility for their content.